I caught up with Tony Al Saiegh, Executive Director at The Date Room in Dubai to talk about the date farming tradition here in the UAE. Growing up in the Middle East (like I did) will give you a head start on your appreciation for the homegrown date, but I want to understand the intricacies of the process – what can be done with this fruit and what makes this region's dates unique? "UAE dates, while a bit smaller in size, tend to be softer, juicier, and sweeter in some cases," says Tony.
Sweet in flavor with a toffee-like texture, the date is that exotic fruit of the palm that transports us to warmer climes and is very much set in the traditions of the Arab world. Inextricably linked with the Ramadan rituals of breaking the fast, perfect for when blood sugar is low, dates are known for their antioxidant properties and natural sugary goodness. They are rich in carbohydrates and provide a natural energy boost. Depending on the variety, each date will contain between 44%-80% simple sugars, which are converted by the cells into glucose and used in energy creation. As with any food high in natural sugar, you want to consume dates in moderation. The date is also linked to occasions, celebrations, and gift-giving, with all sorts of delicious embellishments, including cheeses, fruits, nuts, and chocolate-coated versions – something the Date Room is renowned for in the region.
So, where did it all start? Well, the exact origin of the date palm, Phoenix dactylifera to be precise, goes back pretty far through history, dating all the way to antiquity. But there is evidence to prove that the date palm was cultivated as early as 4000 B.C. Date farming is very much a family tradition here in the UAE, and The Date Room works with about fifteen family-owned farms in Al Ain and the Northern Emirates, all following a process of manual pollination, so it takes a lot of manpower to make this process a fruitful one! Given that these trees are known for their height--sometimes higher than 20 meters--there’s a certain level of skill involved in this age-old farming technique. "When the dates start forming, they go through various stages of growth, and only the last two varieties will be edible, Rotab (the fresh dates) and Dates (the dried version). At the stage of Rotab, one portion is harvested for immediate consumption as it has a low shelf life, and will continue to ripen, whereas the dried dates can last much longer." This makes these fruits perfect for cooking and preserving. And it’s not all about the sweet stuff--dates are used in a variety of savoury dishes too. "We supply many restaurants with date pastes, date vinegar, and raw dates, which are used in a variety of dishes from appetizers to salads and sandwiches," says Tony.
This fruity infusion is very much on-trend, particularly with salad dishes. Peaches, pears, and raspberries are all popping up in savory recipes, so why not try adding a few dates to the mix or blending them into your salad dressing. With a flavor profile similar to molasses, these sweet infusions are synonymous in the region with a traditional fattoush or tabbouleh salad, cutting through the rich, earthy tones and balancing out the mix of flavors. I find that they work nicely with spice too. Having tried a delicious sweet potato pizza with dates, green chili, and feta, the dates replicate the flavors of caramelized onions and provide a little respite after a bite of green chili. A really simple use of dates is in a roasted vegetable dish--rather than honey glazing, highlight that sweetness with dates, maybe adding a splash of vinegar for a tart twist.
There are so many varieties of dates, each with a flavor profile and consistency to suit the dish you’re preparing--some more sweet, some less moist, some more on the chewy side for that extra bite. "Our most popular and biggest sellers are Kholas, Lulu, and Fardh," says Tony. And for those of you with a sweet tooth, you’ll be pleased to know that dates will complement pretty much any dessert, adding an element of velvety luxury--from cakes to cookies, energy bars to ice creams. "We even stuff dried fruits with dates and people love them!" I find dates to provide a great morning boost, working perfectly in a smoothie--they make it dairy-free, sweeten the taste, and add a nice consistency. Dates also lend themselves nicely to breakfast bars, particularly Medjool dates, which give you that soft, fudgy flavor in a simple fruit and nut bar. You don’t even have to worry about refrigerating them because they can last a few weeks in an airtight container. The protein balls that have proven their reach, stocked in gyms and supermarkets worldwide, often contain dates as a key ingredient.
Make this classic and healthy Middle-Eastern dish in just an hour with vegetables from your nearest market, or change it up a bit with some feta cheese.
The extra step of toasting off some pita and tossing it in sumac makes all the difference in this salad. It almost gets better the longer it sits, so it’s a great one to have leftovers of.
This healthy date shake is made with frozen bananas instead of ice cream and requires only a few simple ingredients.
This simple and delicious cake rises up tender and moist, with little chunks of apple scattered throughout. It’s spiced just right with a wonderfully crunchy pecan topping.
Stay up to date, quite literally, and have a browse through our collection of recipes for inspiration on how to make the most of dates in your next dish.